I’d been standing still at the front of my property too long. I knew it had been too long because the Colton boy was squinting at me like he expected something awful was gonna happen. Of course, I shouldn’t call him a boy. Fifty years is plenty old enough to be called a man. That was something I never got used to: human aging. When I sold off this land, parcel by parcel, selling the biggest chunk of it to the Colton boy’s grandfather when he was right about twenty-five years old, I don’t expect either of us thought I’d be back there getting the evil eye from his grandson. Of course, he had less of a reason to imagine that than I did.
I turned my gaze to Mount Lassen, standing tall and proud in front of me. Nothing between me and it but Tilly, a field of tall, green grass and blue and purple wildflowers, the occasional poppy, and past that, a whole lot of pine trees standing sentinel for the mountain. She was a little smaller than she was when I was human, but as pretty as ever. There was something comforting about her patches of snow even now, in early June. Sunny skies? Volcanic insides? None of that was going to stop her from sporting a bit of snow; she did what she wanted.
I had an odd, kindred spirit thing going on with that mountain, I knew that.
Tilly brushed her nose against my fence. I didn’t know if that was her name, but damned if I was going to ask the Colton boy what he called the animal. Every time he let her roam in the fields she came right up to my fence and watched me. I couldn’t decide if she was too smart to be afraid of a soft touch like me, or if she was too dumb to know to be afraid of a werewolf.
Some pixies flew up behind me, swarming Tilly’s head. I didn’t expect they knew I could feel them coming; they acted like they were trying to spook me. That was my interpretation, anyway. I didn’t know them well; they hadn’t spoken to me yet. I was waiting them out.
Tilly shook her head and backed up a step or two.
“Yeah, you hear it, too, girl?” There was a truck rumblin’ up the road, and it wasn’t one of the usuals. Even in Julia’s body, I heard better than most people. It took Tilly longer than I’d expected to pick up on the unfamiliar grinding of gears.
The truck slowed to cross the creek, and now it held my attention. To go to the Coltons’, or pretty much any of the other places back there, you had to turn before the bridge. Crossing that bridge meant a plan to drive right into the Colton’s field. Or up to my gate.
Nobody drove up to my gate.
I ran up to my porch, faster that I ought to if Colton was still looking—I really needed to plant up some trees or something to block their view—and was about to reach inside the door for my rifle when the truck drove up the side of my property, well past the main gate. Were they really going out into the Coltons’ field? What were the Coltons going to think of that?
I started to relax, expecting to watch some asshole drive donuts in their field and either get stuck in the mud out in the wetter parts, or get shot by the Colton boy, when the truck came into view. There were three bodies crammed together behind the glass, and seven or eight hanging off the sides of the truck bed like a bunch of idiots getting ready to die. If they got stuck in that mud, they were going to be hootin’ and hollerin’ out there the rest of the day; I just knew it.
And then Nathaniel Thatcher jumped off the back of the moving truck, and with wolfish grace, planted his dirty boot on my front cattle gate.
I went for my rifle.
By the time he looked up at me, I’d already taken aim. It took him a couple more seconds to recognize me, and I knew when he’d done it because the expression fell off his face. You see the gun pointed at you, you son of a bitch? I was about to say it, I was about to give him fair warning because I’m a lady like that, but then the bastard grinned.
I pulled the trigger.
THE TRUCK FULL OF wolves jerked to a stop I expected I was about to have a pack of angry bastards come runnin’ at me, but they must have known Nathaniel Thatcher as well as I did, because it wasn’t two seconds later the air filled with raucous laughter.
“You know when it’s not funny?” Nathaniel asked them. “When you’re the one who’s being shot! Now, shit, Julia. It’s not like I knew you were here. What’s it been, a century?”
“You’re the reason my fences look like this, aren’t you?” I shouted at him. He could hear me from that distance if I whispered; I was just pissed. He’d fallen back to the other side of the fence where he belonged. Damned good, too, or I’d have kept shooting limbs until he backed off.
“That’s just wear and tear,” he muttered, like a child, with his lip sticking out and everything.
“Bullshit. I was here and fixed these fences not ten years ago,” I told him. “And you can see as well as I can that there have been break-ins.”
“Not as many as woulda if I hadn’t chased ’em off every chance I got!” He looked genuinely offended, which would have almost had me feeling sorry for him, but I didn’t do that. “Thanks for sayin’ hi, by the way,” he grumbled.
I was about to move on and yell at him some more, but like a fool, I took the bait and asked the question he was angling to get out of me: “What are you talking about?”
“When you were here fixing the fence ten years ago,” he said. “Thanks for stoppin’ in, saying hi. Ahh, those were some good ole times we had, right?”
“Right,” I said. “Too bad we missed out on that opportunity for us to have a meetin’ of minds like we are right now. How’s your leg feelin’?”
His buddies back in the truck had just calmed their cacklin’ when they started hissing with laughter, like a pack of hyenas instead of full grown wolves. They sprung outta there and formed a loose half circle around Nathaniel, still careful to keep their distance. I hoped my rifle had ‘em spooked. While I wouldn’t have necessarily shot any of the rest of ‘em on sight, if that was what it took to keep ‘em all away from me, well, I’d shoot anybody I had to in order to keep folks away.
“Julia.” It came rough from his chest, a plea artfully thrown to skewer me right through the ribs. It hurt, but I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of seeing it. I ran my tongue over my teeth with my lips closed shut, knowing how it intensified the glare I shot back at him. He grunted in response. “Don’t be like this. The fences were aged anyway. When I got some spare time I was planning on fixing the damage. It’s not like I knew you were gonna show up.”
“Well I guess dancing on my cattle gate doesn’t give you much time for being a decent human being, now does it?” If he thought he was going to win me over, he had another bullet coming his way. I didn’t lower the gun, but I stepped up and closed the distance between us. We didn’t have to shout or nothin’, but to anyone who might have been watching, it’d look awfully strange. Though anyone watching was probably on the phone with the police by now.
His friends were standing around looking down at him, like they were waiting for the next act in the show.
“Hey Benjamin.” He tipped his hat, which I didn’t see enough of anymore. Another few years and no one would do it. It didn’t use to be something I did, even when I started wearing pants and breaking all other kinds of womanhood traditions that would have killed my mama, but then I noticed I missed it, and so I picked up the habit a few years prior. I thought I’d be part of the tradition’s death rattle. So I tipped my imaginary hat to Benjamin, and he grinned, like he always did, mouth tight and lips to the side.
Benjamin was always the better of the duo. Average height, tanned and muscled like anybody who works outside, with hair tucked up under his hat so often it was easy to forget what color it was.
Brown. His hair was dark brown. I caught it when he bent over to look at Nathaniel’s leg and his hat tipped forward.
“You ever heard of somebody holdin’ a grudge for this long?” Nathaniel asked Benjamin, thinking he was getting in a good jab at me. He should have known better than that.
“You should know better than that,” said Benjamin. “That woman doesn’t forget a thing.”
“That’s right,” I told him. As far as reputations go, it was definitely one I aimed for. “That woman,” I gave Benjamin a look, “doesn’t forget a thing. If you don’t want to be shot, maybe you shouldn’t do things worth someone shooting you for. Did you ever think of that?”
“Good to see you,” Benjamin said, cracking his grin a smidge wider.
“She shot me,” Nathaniel said.
“You’re welcome,” I told him, and rolled my eyes.
“I’m welcome? Welcome?”
“You gettin’ a stutter?” I asked him. “That’ll trip you up with the ladies, you know.”
“Why am I supposed to thank you for shooting me, you crazy woman!”
“I think we can all agree that anybody shootin’ you is probably not crazy. You’ve got a lot of bullets owed to you, don’t you think?”
“And I’m thanking you again, why?”
“Because now you’re the center of attention,” I told him. “You got exactly what you always want.” I shouldered my rifle and turned on my heel. I didn’t have nothing else to say to him, and if I stood there long enough, I was likely to give him another bullet to match.
“What was all that about?” I heard one of the wolves I didn’t know ask.
“That was Julia Grayson,” Benjamin said.
“The one who…?”
I would have liked to finish that sentence a dozen different ways, but I knew what he wasn’t saying. Damned near everybody did.
Julia Grayson, the one who hunts misbehaving werewolves because she can’t find the ones who killed her family.